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Fulton Street mayhem and the fall of A&S

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On Christmas Eve, for several years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I’d wander onto Fulton Street as dusk approached and watch the genesis of a mini-riot. Those were the days, not far removed from John Lindsey’s “fun city” regime, when allowing lawbreakers some latitude was the Big Apple norm.

Everyone knew it was coming; police brass, having distributed a memo cautioning merchants, would conveniently remove their officers from view. One year, as the youthful mob assembled in Albee Square, I stood across the street with two cops, watching the almost military precision of the riot’s organizers. When the signal was given for the mob to march, the officers glanced at each other, then quietly walked toward Livingston Street — out of sight.

At least once, the riot began inside the old Mays department store, with bandits looting merchandise and robbing customers. Mays responded by suddenly shutting down, throwing onto Fulton Street thousands of bag-toting shoppers in a recipe for chaos.

That year, the pandemonium was over rather quickly, but not before the thugs invaded Abraham & Straus, where the pickings were of a higher calibre. While some of the goods would undoubtedly end up beneath sticky-finger Christmas trees, others were immediately sold on the street, within a block or two of A&S.

Eventually, police did arrive, sirens blaring, and ended the disturbance. I remained vexed by the scene’s incongruity, shamed by what I had witnessed.

• • •

For a long while, Fulton Street was Brooklyn’s crown jewel. As late as 1978, when The Brooklyn Papers began publication, it was home to A&S, Mays, Korvettes and Martin’s, the grande dame of Brooklyn department stores.

Although not as elegant as the “white glove” Martin’s, A&S was unique, Brooklyn to its core. Even after local owners had ceded control to Ohio-based Federated Department Stores, A&S remained a leader in the borough’s civic affairs; but the times were changing.

My advertising director, Kevin Dunn, accompanied me to a meeting with the store’s new advertisin­g/marketing director. A&S did advertise with us now and then, running civic-booster stuff, which was fine as far as it went, but we were pushing for “retail” ads, the kind that would turn our readers into shoppers.

While we were well prepared with demographics, numbers and all sorts of tempting deals, it would be for naught. Our conversation was better than cordial, but the bottom line was this: the ad boss at A&S hated being in Brooklyn (and as the years passed we realized that most everyone at the top of A&S would rather be somewhere else). She described how the store had to send a limousine to bring her from Manhattan to Fulton Street for her job interview and how, now that she worked there, she’d park her car in a lot a couple of blocks away (the A&S garage, adjacent to the store, was just too dangerous, she said); holding her “heart in her hand,” she’d race to retrieve her vehicle at day’s end.

We’d never convince her that Brownstone Brooklyn was an A&S market.

A&S wanted out, and began expanding, unsuccessfully, beyond New York. Rival Macy’s, however, fared even worst and went bankrupt, after which A&S’ parent, Federated, aquired Manhattan-based Macy’s and moved what was left of the A&S corporate staff from Fulton Street to 34th Street, and converted the Fulton store to a Macy’s.

Continued next week.


Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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Reasonable discourse

sara bella from downtown, brooklyn says:
Does anyone have a picture of the christmas tree at A&S elevator bank from the 50's - 60's?
Nov. 1, 2009, 2:45 pm
Ed Siejka from formerly Greenpoint says:
Having worked at A&S, 1968-1969 I can understand the AD director's concerns. A&S was a beautiful store and they treated their employes well. However, crime and shoplifiting was a major, major problem and was one of the reasons I stopped working at A&S
Jan. 7, 2014, 1:57 pm

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